IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

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train to busan

I absolutely love TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016).

So much so that after watching it for the first time a couple of years ago on Netflix, I decided to watch it again last month. The result? I enjoyed it even more!

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a South Korean horror movie about the zombie apocalypse. Now, obviously, there have been many stories about said apocalypse in recent years, from the exceptional THE WALKING DEAD TV show to films like WORLD WAR Z (2013) and ZOMBIELAND (2009). What makes TRAIN TO BUSAN stand out from all the rest?

For me it’s the same for any quality movie: it’s the writing, stupid!

TRAIN TO BUSAN has a superior script that both tells a compelling story and creates memorable characters. The result is one heck of an emotional roller coaster ride, and that’s the part that I enjoyed the most upon a second viewing. I had forgotten just how emotional this movie got. Bring out the tissues! You’re going to need them.

Yup. You’re gonna need a bigger box of tissues.

And TRAIN TO BUSAN is that good. It’s on par with the best episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, and in terms of movies, you have to go back to George Romero to find a better zombie movie. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) might be better, but that one’s a comedy.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is pure horror.

In TRAIN TO BUSAN, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) just can’t seem to spend enough time with his daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim), as his job simply keeps him too busy. But when he decides to accompany his daughter on a train ride to take her to see her mother who he’s now separated from, he hopes to at least have this time with her.

Unfortunately for Seok-woo, he picked a bad day to go for a train ride with his daughter, as it just so happens to be the same day that the zombie apocalypse breaks out. And suddenly, quick moving flesh eating zombies are overrunning the land and getting on the train. A small group of survivors band together to fight off the zombies, all the while hoping the train makes it to Busan, where rumor has it that the military has successfully created a safe haven there.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of these survivors, who besides Seok-woo and Soo-an, also includes a pregnant woman Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) and her husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), and two high school students, Jin-hee (Sohee) and Yong-guk (Woo-sik Choi) to name a few.

What follows is an intense thrill ride that provides nonstop chills and suspenseful action sequences, as well as tugging at your heartstrings, in a big, big way.

The cast in TRAIN TO BUSAN is phenomenal.

Yoo Gong is naturally heroic as main character and daddy Seok-woo. At first, he’s not the most sympathetic character, as it’s clear that in the past he has placed his career above his daughter, but when the zombies attack, it’s also clear that Seok-woo will do whatever it takes to protect his young daughter. Gong makes for a dashing young hero.

Some of Gong’s best scenes are with his co-star Dong-seok Ma who plays Sang-hwa, the husband who similarly will do whatever it takes to protect his pregnant wife. Dong-seok Ma delivers the most fun performance in the film, as Sang-hwa is both a humorous guy and a kick-ass fighter who becomes the go-to guy when the need arises to fend off the walking dead. Initially, Seok-woo and Sang-hwa do not see eye to eye, but as things grow more bleak they put aside their differences and work together.

Yu-mi Jung is equally as good as Seong-kyeong, the pregnant wife who eventually befriends Seok-woo’s daughter Soo-an. Jung makes Seong-kyeong one of the film’s strongest characters, as she has to go above and beyond what one would expect a pregnant woman to have to do.

Likewise, Sohee is memorable as teen Jin-hee.

But best of all is Su-an Kim as Seok-woo’s young daughter Soo-an. She gives the most emotional performance in the entire movie. She has some of the best scenes in the film, and she is more than up to the task of nailing these powerhouse scenes, and for such a young performer, that’s saying a lot.

And I challenge you to find a more emotional ending to a horror movie. Talk about gut-wrenching, the final sequence will have you shaking.

Director Sang-ho Yeon has made one of the best zombie films ever. In addition to the first-rate performances and superb story, there are some truly outstanding action sequences here, well-crafted by Yeon. From hordes of zombies charging up escalators to the characters having to battle their way through zombie infested train cars, the film’s action sequences are second to none.

The special effects are also top-notch. The zombies look scary and are plenty deadly, and these undead folks are of the speedy variety. No slow-moving walkers here. These babies run like the wind!

But the best part of TRAIN TO BUSAN is that the film gets the emotions right. You truly feel for these characters, and the situations they find themselves in play out as tremendously realistic. TRAIN TO BUSAN is a much more emotionally satisfying movie than say WORLD WAR Z which as entertaining as it was fell flat emotionally.

A lot of the credit for the emotion goes to the screenplay by Joo-Suk Park and director Sang-ho Yeon. The script creates riveting situations, likable characters, and realistic dialogue, and it’s all executed to perfection by the actors and by director Yeon.

TRAIN TO BUSAN was the first South Korean zombie apocalypse horror movie, and it’s not going to be the last, as a sequel is already in the works.

You really need to watch TRAIN TO BUSAN. It’s one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made, and it’s certainly the most satisfying zombie horror movie of the last twenty years.

What are you waiting for? Get your ticket already! Of course, once on board, you may want to text your loved ones, as there’s no guarantee you’ll actually make it to Busan. The zombies on the train are plenty hungry, and they have the humans insanely outnumbered, but heck, it’s a helluva thrill ride, one that you definitely don’t want to miss!

Will that be one ticket or two?

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THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) – Understated Satire Just Happens to Have Zombies In It

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THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Some day, perhaps, THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019) might be remembered as a masterpiece of understated humor and satire.

Alas, today is not that day.

THE DEAD DON’T DIE is a new horror comedy starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver that is being marketed as a zombie comedy, but you know what? It’s not really a zombie movie. Oh, there are zombies in it, but it’s the most non-zombie zombie movie I’ve ever seen, which is not going to make it a hit among horror fans.

In fact I’d wager to guess that most horror fans will not like this movie. Even though it mentions George Romero and throws in a few Easter eggs here and there, it largely ignores the zombie films which have come before it. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but in this case it is not.

Heck, since its comedy really isn’t all that biting— heh, heh!— comedy fans aren’t going to be too keen on this one either. Yup, I’m going to go out on a—limb— and predict that this one will not perform all that well at the box office.

That being said, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is not an awful film. I actually liked it, in a weird offbeat sort of way, and that’s because at the end of the day THE DEAD DON’T DIE is satire, that just happens to have zombies in it. It’s the type of comedy that Bob Newhart would have made in his heyday, with Murray filling in here for the Newhart role. It has a few pointed things to say about our present day society, but the writing is never as sharp, and the direction never as tight as a movie like this needs it to be. Even when the film breaks the fourth wall, the humor still struggles. Yet, there are places where it works and works well.

In THE DEAD DON’T DIE, Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his fellow officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) usually have nothing more urgent to do in their small town of Centerville than ask their local Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) whether or not he stole chickens from the annoying farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi). But suddenly things grow strange.

The daylight lasts longer than usual, watches and cell phones stop working, and soon the dead start to rise and begin eating the townspeople. The culprit? The controversial use of global fracking has affected the earth’s rotation, and as a result all these freaky things start happening. Supposedly. The people aren’t sure, because the government cites global fracking as safe and accuses scientists of spreading false information. Sound familiar?

How Robertson and his fellow officers react to these horrific happenings is the story told in THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Trouble is, the biggest way they react is by standing around and doing nothing. So much for compelling storytelling!

THE DEAD DON’T DIE was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director known for his deadpan style. Jarmusch is tenacious here with his slow-moving satire, which might be the film’s greatest asset, that it never deviates from its slow pace, its unassuming humor, and its coy messages on society.

The satire in THE DEAD DON’T DIE is there. It’s just not always all that clear. For instance, Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Frank wears a red cap which reads “Keep America White Again,” a slogan which in itself satirizes the modern-day message of the Trump presidency as well as poking fun at the overall intelligence of his followers with its grammatically incorrect slogan. It appears ever so briefly and is easily missed. Yet it got a good chuckle from the audience.

Speaking of which, I saw THE DEAD DON’T DIE in a full theater in which the majority in the audience were college-aged folks. It was a lively audience that was laughing and having fun even before the movie started. And they were generous with their laughter throughout the movie, laughing much more than I did.

As mentioned, the film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion, sequences where Murray and Driver discuss the theme song and even the script. But it’s not the type of lively screenplay that is filled with playful asides a la the works of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks. In fact, there is very little that is lively about the entire movie. There’s about as much energy surrounding this flick as a heavy-duty afternoon nap.

There are also some fun little in-jokes, like Adam Driver carrying a STAR WARS key chain, a direct nod to his role in the new STAR WARS trilogy.

A lot of the humor doesn’t work. The running gag about the theme song wasn’t funny at the beginning and it’s even less funny by the end.

There’s a GREAT GATSBY gaffe that I’m still not sure I understand. A character mentions she loves the name Zelda because of Zelda Fitzgerald, who she says was Jay Gatsby’s wife in THE GREAT GATSBY, but Gatsby wasn’t married, and his love interest in the novel was Daisy Buchanan. Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but since what I’m missing isn’t obvious, such a gaffe just comes off as lazy writing.

Speaking of lazy, there’s a heck of a lot of inaction going on here. Characters stand around and talk, and talk, and talk. There’s one sequence after the first zombie kill in the diner when Chief Robertson discovers the bodies, that features as its gag people saying the same lines when they see the bodies for this first time. Admittedly, this is funny, but it takes place during a sequence where we have to watch each character drive up to the diner, casually take their time entering and exiting before saying the aforementioned line. S-l-o-w.

There are a lot of satirical moments poking fun at today’s society, and most of these work, although they are exceedingly understated.

The horror elements are also downplayed here, and while there are some gory sequences, this one doesn’t really hold its own as a horror movie. There are also scenes of dialogue where the characters in a panic go on about the zombie epidemic, and they go on at lengths which aren’t supported by events in the movie. There’s basically one zombie scene before the film’s third and final act.

There’s also an annoying way the zombie’s die, as when they are killed they give off a puff of smoke. What is this, TWILIGHT?

THE DEAD DON’T DIE does have a terrific cast, which is one of its strengths, and they all play quirky characters.

Bill Murray is fine as Chief Robertson. He certainly has been funnier in his career, but he handles the deadpan humor well, again channeling a Bob Newhart vibe. There’s also an in-joke when his character breaks the fourth wall and asks Adam Driver if they are simply improvising here, since Murray began his career with improv, and is known to have improvised in some of his movies. Then again, maybe it simply means that Murray and Driver weren’t working with a script!

Adam Driver also nails the deadpan humor as Officer Peterson. I increasingly enjoy Driver in the movies, and while his biggest role to date has been the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS trilogy, I’ve enjoyed him more in such films as BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017). He was probably my favorite part of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, and he certainly got the most laughs, but he also didn’t have to try very hard. The audience laughed when he showed up at a crime scene driving a miniscule car.

Chloe Sevigny is very good as Officer Morrison, and Tilda Swinton has the most unusual role as local mortician Zelda Winston, who’s an eccentric character whose idiosyncracies sometimes generate laughter and other times misfire. She’s the one character in the film who is a badass zombie killer, which provide Swinton with her best moments in the movie.

Steve Buscemi is on hand as the irritable farmer Frank, and he has a couple of comic moments, but for a guy like Buscemi, that’s less than you expect. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob.

Hermit Bob’s line at the end of the film that we live in a crazy world kinda sums up the point of the film, that this world is a crazy place, and that zombies rising from the dead isn’t any nuttier than things we are already seeing.

As I said, one day this film may be remembered as a classic satire. But today, alas, due to its incredibly slow and lethargic pace and less than sharp writing, it’s going down in my book as a well-intentioned look at the crazy world in which we live that lacked the necessary energy and oomph to successfully make its case.

It also doesn’t help itself in that it’s not much of a zombie movie, a fact that most likely will keep its potential fan base away from the theater.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

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Night_of_the_Living_Dead posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the George Romero classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), published in the October 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

Today we have THE WALKING DEAD.  But years ago, the zombie phenomenon which swept the nation was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

George Romero’s cult classic from 1968 is more than just a superior horror film:  it’s a landmark film that inspired a genre.  It’s the film that put zombie movies on the map, or at least the modern zombie movie.  Before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, zombie movies, while still a genre, with classic films like WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) starring Bela Lugosi, and Val Lewton’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) were hardly a major player in the horror movie canon. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD changed all that.

In truth, THE WALKING DEAD, the mega hit TV show on AMC, can thank NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for re-defining the parameters of the genre. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the movie that first showed the walking dead eating the bodies of the living in graphic grotesque detail, and it’s one of the first films to deal with the zombie apocalypse.

Best-selling author Craig Shaw Gardner tells a neat story about first seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in the 1960s at the movies at the tail end of a triple feature, following THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  Now that’s a triple feature I wish I had gone to see!  Gardner recounts that when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD started, he and his buddies almost left the theater because the film was in black and white, and they thought it was going to be a cheapie B-movie, but they stayed, and they were rewarded by one of the scariest movies they had ever seen.

In large part, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD works so well because it is so unlike the other horror films of the decade.  For ten years England’s Hammer Films dominated the horror market with their opulent period piece thrillers and Frankenstein and Dracula sequels starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  At the same time Vincent Price was matching them fright for fright with his appearances in the 1960s Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe movies.

But in 1968, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, along with Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, bucked the trend and started something new. Gone were the formulaic horror movies of yesterday.  In their place, at least in the case of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, was a low budget newsreel quality flick that was as unpredictable and jarring as it was graphic and violent.

Like John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) would do ten years later, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD burst unannounced onto the horror scene and single-handedly carved out a brand new genre of horror movie.  In the case of HALLOWEEN, it was the slasher flick, and with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it was the zombie movie.

But unlike HALLOWEEN and other trend-setting horror movies, films like THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975) and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), success for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD didn’t happen overnight.  In fact, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was not a box office smash but instead became a cult hit as it was a drive-in movie favorite and a midnight movie mainstay for years and years.  Romero himself didn’t make a sequel until ten years later, with DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

The low budget style works to the film’s advantage, as there is a realistic feel throughout.  It makes you believe that the zombie apocalypse might truly be happening.  Of course, the main reason NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD succeeds in spite of its low budget is the stylish direction by George Romero. It has no-name actors, and it’s shot nearly all in one place, at a farmhouse, but there’s nothing cheap about the way this one is crafted.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Romero’s direction is almost art-house level.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD tells a simple story.  A young woman name Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother are attacked by a zombie in a graveyard.  Her brother is killed, and while she’s still in shock, she escapes to a farmhouse where she meets another man Ben (Duane Jones) who is also fleeing from the reanimated dead.  There are also more people hiding out in this house, and the rest of the film chronicles their efforts to ward off the attacking zombies while trying to learn why all of this is happening.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is as dark a horror movie as you’re going to find, and it still works today.  It’s brutal storyline and shock effects still hold up rather well, even for modern audiences.

Romero does a tremendous job at the helm, keeping this film suspenseful throughout, as it builds up to its horrific graphic conclusion.  The screenplay by Romero and John A. Russo tells a flat out in-your-face terror tale, but it also does something more, as it also serves as a reflection of the turbulent times of the 1960s.

It was released in 1968, one of the more violent years in American history, with the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  There was also the Vietnam War, and racial tensions were heating up.  With the main character Ben being a black male, pretty much unheard of in 1968, especially in horror movies (Sidney Poitier wasn’t doing the horror film thing) the film really delves into race relations, especially in light of how this movie ends.

Interestingly enough, the character was originally written to be quite different.  Ben was going to be a rough and crude truck driver, but when the studious looking Duane Jones auditioned for the part, the role was re-written for him.  Seriously, I can’t imagine the ending packing the same wallop with a white truck driver Ben.  The film’s ending blows you out of the water because Ben is black.  It lifts all that has come before it to another level entirely, and makes NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD something far more than just a straightforward horror movie.  Very few horror movies can make this claim.

Also of note, the word “zombie” is never used in the film.  The zombies are referred to as either “those things” or ghouls.  TV’s THE WALKING DEAD has also borrowed from the same playbook, as they don’t use the word zombie in their show either.

This Halloween season, while you’re enjoying the latest episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, remember the film that inspired it, the one that created the movie zombie as we know it today: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

They’re coming to get you, Barbra!

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